Just north of New York State is Connecticut, the most southern of the New England States. Famed as the country home of New York’s rich and famous, Connecticut is also home to architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House.
This is not a single building, but a collection of small architectural masterpieces within a 19 hectare (47 acre) estate.
The town of New Canaan is a short 90 minute train ride from New York’s Grand Central Terminus.
As any New Yorker will tell you, Grand Central is a Terminus and not a Station as the trains only head in one direction. If you want to head south to Washington you leave from nearby Pennsylvania Station.
From the visitors centre next to the New Canaan railway station, visitors are transported by small coach to the Glass House estate. No direct public access is possible, so you will need to book a tour online (May to November) at theglasshouse.org.
Philip Johnson was a leading member of the so-called International Style of Architecture, along with Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra and Louis Kahn, although Johnson’s flirtation with post-modernism in the 1980s didn’t endear him to other architects of the time.
However, Johnson was more interested in a broader view of architecture, as just one form of artistic expression.
Pop artist Andy Warhol was a close personal friend, with Johnson the subject of one of Warhol’s series of multi-image silk screen portraits.
Johnson donated the iconic Gold Marilyn portrait of Marilyn Monroe to the Museum of Modern Art in New York during his time as curator of architecture at the museum.
Johnson’s ambition was “to work until I turn 100 and then move to Rome”. He fell just short of this ambition, dying in 2005 just before his 99th birthday.
While never quite achieving the level of recognition of American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson has, at his Glass House estate, left a legacy for anyone interested in architecture as a form of art.
The Glass House
The Glass House building itself was built in 1949, and is, essentially, a single space, 16.5 metres long and 8 metres wide, with only a brick cylinder containing a bathroom rising to the ceiling.
The carefully manicured landscape surrounds and becomes part of the building’s interior through the glass walls. At night the interior is lit from outside, ensuring that this illusion of added space is enjoyed in the evening as well.
The very sparse but supremely elegant furniture is all by Johnson’s close associate Mies van der Rohe, including a grouping of original Barcelona chairs.
Adjoining the Glass House is a guest house, constructed with solid brick walls and lit by skylights, offering a complete contrast to the openness of the Glass House.
Below the promontory containing both houses is a lakeside pavilion, suspended over a pool Johnson constructed in 1962. The design is in the form of 2.5 modules, each with its own series of white concrete arches.
The third addition to the property was the Painting Gallery, added in 1965. The building is surrounded by an earth berm, and the interior is lit from above via a series of skylights.
Inside are three galleries, each containing a series of moveable leafs, like an oversized postcard rack. This allowed Johnson to store and display an extensive number of paintings, which could be revealed or hidden from view depending on the audience.
The fourth building is the sculpture gallery, set in woodland to the east of the property. Built in 1970, the building is sheathed in white painted brick, with a 45° roof plane of glass panels creating an ever-changing pattern as the sun moves overhead, dappled by the surrounding trees.
On a series of levels are individual art installations by contemporary American sculptors.
That other Frank
Near the entrance to the compound is a homage to Frank Geary, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
This building, christened by Johnson as Da Monsta, was built in 1995. It comprises a number of interlocking, curved plaster walls, each painted a different colour, and was intended as a visitors centre.
However, when the property was handed over to the National Trust in 2007, the local council insisted that visitors be transported to the site from a New Canaan visitors centre to reduce traffic and avoid constructing a large car park.
New York legacy
Back in New York, pay a visit to the Johnson-designed Lincoln Centre. Also, the Seagram Building at 375 Park Avenue, designed jointly by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe in 1958, is recognised as the first truly modern skyscraper.